William Tell Overture
Prélude à laprès-midi dun faune
Helix [BBC commission: world premiere]
The Mastersingers of Nuremberg Prelude to Act I
Scheherazade Symphonic suite, Op.35
World Orchestra for Peace
Reviewed by: Timothy Ball
Reviewed: 27 August, 2005
Venue: Royal Albert Hall, London
On paper, this programme might appear somewhat puzzling, given that the first half consisted of ‘overture-type’ pieces – in actuality or by implication – followed by a work which is often delivered as an orchestral showpiece.
In point of fact, this was a particularly satisfying concert, with a remarkable body of players responding to Valery Gergiev’s dynamic direction, and even the most familiar passages did not sound at all tired or banal.
The World Orchestra for Peace was celebrating its first ten years. Formed in 1995 by the late Sir Georg Solti, it consists of instrumentalists that are hand-picked from orchestras around the world. On this occasion, 70 orchestras and 30 countries were represented. The standard of playing was really extraordinary, and one could revel in sheer beauty and technical finesse alone, though these – and other qualities – always seemed to be at the service of the music.
The cellos at the start of the overture to Rossini’s William Tell, led by Sandro Laffanchini from La Scala Milan, gave an indication of what was to come – sensitive, refined playing with immaculate ensemble. The storm episode was not just loud – we could register details of orchestration even at Gergiev’s volatile tempo – cor anglais and flute duetted delightfully, and the concluding gallop was exhilarating rather than merely fast.
Flautist Timothy Hutchins (from the Montreal Symphony Orchestra) also initiated Debussy’s Prélude, and his tone was both cool and expressive. Other soloists were equally admirable. This was quite a lush reading, without going over the top. We heard some important horn dissonance that is often submerged, and the raptness of the quieter passages was absolutely captivating.
Esa-Pekka Salonen wrote that he had “decided to compose a celebratory and direct overture-like piece”, and that the form of Helix can be described as “a curve that lies on a cone and makes a constant angle with the straight lines parallel to the base of the cone”. I regret I could not discern, from the music, these conical and angular references, but what Salonen has produced is a virtuoso piece that demands much from the performers. And this first performance seemed astonishingly accurate and assured.
The 9-minute Helix is, essentially, a gradual acceleration, with the tempo getting faster, but the note-lengths becoming longer. One is supposed to be able to follow the transformations of the musical materials, but as the themes are not instantly or readily memorable, this was a little difficult. Like much of Salonen’s recent orchestral music, there is a curious ‘anonymity’ about the overall style. It certainly doesn’t sound Finnish, and Helix has reminders of John Adams, specifically the Adams of Short Ride in a Fast Machine and has comparable energy and, towards the close, visceral excitement. Orchestra and conductor appeared to enjoy its challenges.
Gergiev’s reading of the Mastersingers Prelude (not “Overture” as advised in the programme) was on the swift side. Here were no over-fed burghers striding majestically, but this performance was notable for the elucidation of inner detail and fine realisation of the contrapuntal writing as well as for capturing the optimistic spirit of Wagner’s music.
The ‘symphonic’ qualities of Rimsky’s Scheherazade were emphasised; this was no picture-postcard performance – though there was colour aplenty – but the use of thematic links between the four movements was made explicit and the work had, as a result, integrity and a flowing quality which was aided by Gergiev moving straight into the second movement and into the fourth, although some people just had to applaud after the second!
Rainer Küchl of the Vienna Philharmonic provided the silky violin solos – really quite touching at the close – and the alertness of the whole orchestral response was a delight. The contributions of all sections were unimpeachable, and a piece that can seem to have less than inspired moments was gripping throughout. Goodness knows how the musicians followed Gergiev’s seemingly wayward gestures, but there was not a moment of spoiled ensemble or imprecision of attack. Dynamics and articulation were exemplary.
For encores were the Scherzo from Mendelssohn’s music to A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with staccatos precisely pointed and accents duly weighed; and, then, astonishingly, Gergiev announced that the World Orchestra for Peace would play Eric Coates’s Knightsbridge March. This can surely have never received as polished and refined a performance as it did here; the trio section almost had the grace of a Strauss waltz, and the whole was given with great spirit and made a rousing conclusion.
Now, where’s that recording of Knappertsbusch conducting Ketèlbey?